The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers

Akinbami Agbebi to John E. Bruce


Although my First Reports on Shipping and Trade dated 2nd April 1920[1] may have just reached you and the various matters they contained are no doubt having your consideration, the trend of commercial events and activities now in Lagos, and for that matter, in Nigeria and the whole of West Africa, are assuming an aspect which an organization, like ourselves, seeking its rightful position in the development of the country and its resultant benefits, cannot afford to overlook or ignore without doing an injury to its own objective. Indeed it will be lack of vision on our part should we look, with unmindful equanimity, at what is going on on all sides while we dream of having a place, by and by, in the commercial and industrial "sun" of our fatherland.
I have formerly called attention to the renewed energy with which the Caucasian has set to work in Nigeria since the close of the war. To-day that energy is being brought to play in a manner that indicates the existence of a strong determination to exploit all the wealth of Africa for the benefit of Europe. Several long established and flourishing firms have joined their forces, raised their capital to gigantic proportions and have planned out elaborate and far reaching schemes for the economic exploitation of the resources of Africa.
While this is going on and almost every ground is being covered, I as your representative here consider it my bounden duty not only to pave the way for the entrance of our Corporation but also to make all possible arrangements which will secure to us a strong foothold for all time. I believe I have correctly interpreted your wish when I say that when once we enter Nigeria we mean to stay and to consolidate our own position.
This being so I have made it my chief aim to keep you well informed of the true position of things and to urge you to take immediate action. The amount of our future share in the untold wealth which this and other countries of West Africa offers to well organized enterprise depends upon what efforts we make now to establish ourselves.
I do not for one moment intend to dissuade you from your original plan of reaching all negro communities in the world but it is my strong conviction that if all your attention were to be concentrated firstly to engaging in West African trade the result, within a short time, will surprise you and all in Liberty Hall.
One of the things that have struck me very forcibly since I have started upon my work here is the get-it-at-all-cost way the European firms have been acquiring land at Lagos on comparatively short and costly leases. Almost every foot of land in the business centres of the town has been so acquired. The whole place is practically bought up and new comers like ourselves will before long find it very difficult to secure a foothold for their business. Some of those places I have inwardly marked down for the future operation of our Corporation have been to my disappointment leased out to European speculators.
This feverish haste on the part of our white rivals has led me to take it for granted that it is your wish that attempt should be made to acquire land, with as little delay as possible for our present and future needs. My efforts so far in that direction are detailed in my Report herewith.
I have also taken it for granted that our establishment in Lagos presupposes gradual expansion and establishment in other principal Ports and Trade centres in Nigeria. And I have taken pains to describe each port and trade centre as regards its importance and facilities, its advantages and drawbacks. I have also outlined as far as possible a scheme I feel we ought to adopt to organize these various centres for our own purpose.
I trust my report will be given just consideration and the various urgent matters touched upon given prompt attention.
At this stage of the progress of my work I desire to direct attention to the fact that I have devoted very much attention to seeing that the business part of the work you have entrusted into my hands is properly established and conducted on approved lines. I have followed this method for reasons not difficult of explanation.
This country being after all a British protectorate everything we do must be done with due regards to local laws and the delicacy of the relationship between our kins and the British Government. Hence my refraining presently to cater or advertise for shares openly or make the business more widely known until I would have succeeded in registering the Corporation. That this movement [a]s the greatest negro movement ever attempted is the cynosure of every eye in all land is a fact which has been conceded and any undue haste on my part to plant a branch here will jeopardize rather than contribute to its lasting success. On the other hand the conservativeness of our people which makes them distrustful of every new innovation regardless of its origin or claims, is a force to be reckoned with and an obstacle to be surmounted by demonstrations of some sort. I have found that the methods of disillusion you have adopted to arouse the members of our race in United States and other places, and which work so smoothly will fail utterly here if unsupported by ocular demonstration, so to speak.
The reason for this also is not far to seek. There exist to-day here in Lagos some "Dickties"—I do not know their number—as there were in Boston before you captured that city in the interest of the U.N.I.A. The following excerpt from your recent speech in Liberty Hall is equally applicable to Lagos:—
“There is an exclusive class of negroes who condemn everything that comes to (Boston) Lagos that they are not head of and that is why there is no great movement in (Boston) Lagos except in name.”
And what is more the town is divided into petty factions that it is difficult to single out a leader with sufficient courage to support lofty ideals which do not originate or bear the approval of "his good white friends." This is why I have as it were of a set purpose refrained from any attempt to put the ideals of the U.N.I.A. before the interest of the B.S.L. in dealing with Lagos.
I am not afraid of making sacrifice in the great cause a member of which I am privileged to be, and even now I have been carrying on my work and paving the way for our organization at a great personal inconvenience. But the conditions obtaining here justify the methods I have adopted and I trust you will approve them. For the present my work as far as founding a branch of the U.N.I.A. is concerned is confined to influencing [a] young but highly intelligent class etc.
REGISTRATION. Inability to register the Corporation owing to the particulars required by law not being available is the only thing that handicaps me at present and makes my progress somewhat slow. On the 7th April I sent you a cablegram (vide confirmation copies attached) calling for copy of the charter etc of the Corporation and your reply thereto dated 10th April reported the posting of the papers. I still await the papers and as soon as they reach me the way will be clear for me.
SHARES. I referred to this somewhere in this letter and pending the receipt of the papers on which hinges the registration I have entered into communications with prominent men in different districts to prepare the way for a regular campaign.
CREDIT. In several cablegrams telegraphic communications which have passed between us (vide copies attached) the question of opening a credit for me in the local Bank was repeatedly dealt with. Your telegram dated May 7 mentioned the cabling of $100 to me. But there was no credit advice in my favour in the local banks and up to now, I have not got the amount.
I am was however at a loss to understand why such an insignificantly small remittance was cabled to me.
My First Report probably had reached you before that cable was sent. I would respectfully point out that the outlay which the working of this agency will entail, even at this initial stage, is by far greater than we had perhaps suspected, and unless we are prepared to spend as much as possible our work will suffer considerably. I have made this the subject of my telegram of May 19.
Apart from current expenses, e.g. Salaries, Rents etc, money should be available here at all time to pay the manifold shipping dues and fees required by the Government and the expense of discharging and loading our ships. I have already asked for a credit of £500 which will be utilized as strictly economical as possible and I hope for a favourable reply.
TRADE BRANCH. Since making the recommendations in my First Report, which recommendations I beg to iterate reiterate with stronger emphasis, I have noticed that the "Negro Factories Corporation" has been floated through your indefatigable efforts. As this Corporation is practically [id]entical in every detail with the Trade Branch of my suggestion I would strongly urge that it begins at once to operate here on the lines I have already suggested. Charity no doubt begins at home. And this thought is probably responsible for the plan of erecting a factory first in New York. But while attention is being paid to New York the right value should be placed upon West Africa—Nigeria in particular—as a greater source of turning large dividends to investors.
In conclusion I beg to wish you and all your colleagues greater and greater success. I remain Yours faithfully
A. Agbebi General Agent
P.S. The attached cutting[2] from "West Africa"[3] may interest you as an [il]lustration of the value of Nigeria to Great Britain.
NN-Sc, JEB, MS 258. TLS, recipient's copy. On Black Star Line letterhead.
[1] This report has not been found.
[2] This clipping has not been found.
[3] A weekly newsmagazine published in London, West Africa was founded in February 1917 to serve British commercial firms trading in West Africa. The magazine followed the demise of Edmund Dene Morel's African Mail, which appeared from October 1907 to January 1917. Its first editor, Albert Cartwright (1869–1956), began his career as a journalist in South Africa. Except for a long tour of West Africa in 1916, he never lived in the region. He retained close contact with leading West Africans in London and with British colonial personnel, who, as well as businessmen, invested in Africa.
While West Africa was initially directed at a primarily European audience, the magazine increasingly appealed to African readers, whose views were particularly reflected in the column "Comments of the West African Press." Over the years, as its popularity grew among Africans living abroad, the magazine's readership became predominantly African. The magazine maintained a moderate position in African politics. It praised the NCBWA as "the beginning of a new era" (3 April 1920), but later objected that the "right class of Africans" was not represented in the delegation to London (25 September 1920). The magazine tried to hold a middle ground between the colonial government and the African nationalists, noting that "if moderation and patience were urged on Africans, Europeans were always urged to take African political aspirations seriously" (4 February 1967) (Abdou Latif Ndiaye, "The European Presence in Africa: A Historical and Literary Study" [Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1984]; William Roger Louis and Jean Stengers, eds., E. D. Morel 's History of the Congo Reform Movement [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968], p. x).